Post-debate media mockery may doom Rubio’s campaign

Photo of Rubio in Londonderry, New Hampshire (cc) 2015 by Marc Nozell
Rubio in Londonderry, New Hampshire, last August. Photo (cc) 2015 by Marc Nozell

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

I come today not to bury Marco Rubio, but to take pulse of the media landscape to determine whether the pundits are going to bury him. And the answer is yes. Yes they are.

The establishment choice for the Republican nomination, bolstered by a better-than-expected performance in the Iowa caucuses last Monday, ran into a wrecking ball named Chris Christie at Saturday night’s presidential debate. Judging from the media reaction, Rubio’s status as a serious candidate may effectively be over.

It started even before the debate ended, when the venerable journalist James Fallows of The Atlantic took to Twitter and called Rubio’s meltdown the “most self-destructive debate performance since Quayle ’88 and Stockdale ’92.”

It continued on CNN, where conservative commentator Matt Lewis called Chris Christie’s devastatingly effective takedown of Rubio “a murder-suicide.”

And it carried over to Talking Points Memo, with liberal analyst Josh Marshall opining that Rubio’s “flailing will be a key subject of discussion for the next two days. And that’s a terrible way to close. It’s hard to overcome an echo chamber effect in a febrile news environment over 48 hours.”

In case you missed it (and if you had something better to do on a Saturday night, I salute you), Christie went into full New Jersey bully mode and mocked Rubio’s inexperience, sneering that Rubio was unable to speak in anything other than “a memorized 25-second speech.”

Rubio got flustered, challenged Christie to little effect—and then, incredibly, came back with one of his memorized lines not once, not twice, not thrice, but four times. To wit: “This notion that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing is just not true. He knows exactly what he’s doing.”

The lead debate stories in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and, I’m sure, numerous other papers this morning referred prominently to Rubio’s self-destruction. Worse, the Florida senator became a viral sensation—and not in a good way.

A parody Twitter account, @RubioGlitch, made its debut, with each tweet ending, “He knows exactly what he’s doing.” On both sides of the Atlantic, commentators compared Rubio’s performance to a famous scene from The Stepford Wives. “Like Paula Prentiss, he got stuck in malfunction mode,” wrote my Northeastern colleague Alan Schroeder, a presidential debate historian, at The Huffington Post.Added Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian: “It looked like that sequence from the 1970s thriller The Stepford Wives, when a software glitch reveals that a human-like character is in fact a robot.”

Several commentators have pointed out that the Rubio-Christie exchange came early, and that Rubio regained his composure after that. But ABC inflicted three hours of debate-related TV on us (the actual debate was closer to two and a half hours), and I’ve got to believe that the first hour drew by far the most viewers. Besides, whatever lasting impressions people form will come from after-the-fact media coverage.

The one note of caution I could find was from Nate Silver of Five Thirty Eight, who wrote that, bad as Rubio looked, voters may not agree with the pundits:

Political reporters are in the “fog of war” phase of the campaign where our reactions aren’t necessarily good matches for those of voters at home. Some of the reason we reporters thought Rubio’s answer was so awful is because it confirmed some of our gossip about Rubio, namely that he tends to give pat, repetitive answers. But we tend to be more sensitive about that stuff, because we watch every debate from start to finish, and then we see lots of the candidates’ stump speeches and town halls on top of it. There’s a fine line between a candidate who seems stilted and repetitive and one who seems “on message” instead.

Rubio was by far the biggest story coming out of Saturday’s debate, but there were other stories as well. John Kasich turned in a fine performance, and for once post-debate commentary was swinging his way. He was ebullient during a CNN interview in the spin room. (Of course, he’s always ebullient.)

As conservative as Kasich is, the Republican Party has moved so far to the right that he is regularly dismissed as a RINO (a Republican in Name Only). But Kasich may be perfectly positioned to do well in New Hampshire, as independents who are turned off by Hillary Clinton and wary of Bernie Sanders may choose a Republican ballot instead. It’s hard to see Kasich doing well after New Hampshire, but Tuesday could be a good day for him.

I’ve made it to the 750th word of this piece without mentioning Donald Trump, the frontrunner. I thought he got away unscathed. Yes, I’m appalled at his full-throated endorsement of torture (“I would bring back waterboarding and I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding”), and I’m even more appalled that no one seemed to care. But the other candidates, other than Jeb Bush, didn’t challenge him all that much.

And when Bush went after Trump on eminent domain, Bush won on substance but Trump won on style, attacking the “donors and special interests” he claimed had packed the debate hall and were booing him. “The move was classic pro-wrestling—like Vince McMahon baiting the crowd,” said Jonathan Last of The Weekly Standard. “And it was so crazy that it kind of worked.”

As for Ted Cruz, he may have won Iowa, but it seems unlikely that he’ll do as well with New Hampshire voters, who have not been kind to evangelical candidates in the past. In response to the dirty tricks his campaign engaged in to sway Ben Carson’s supporters in Iowa, Cruz has settled on a characteristically cynical tactic: apologize for his campaign’s claims that Carson was dropping out of the race while claiming that they really believed it to be true. Cruz had to misrepresent CNN’s reporting in order to pull it off, but whatever.

The downfall of Marco Rubio is what we’ll be talking about this week. A candidate can survive many things, but mockery is not one of them. The next few days are going to be telling, but I really think it may be over for him. Which means that what’s left of the Republican establishment is going to have to come up with another alternative lest it get stuck with Trump or Cruz.

I recently predicted that Bush would win the nomination based on nothing other than the process of elimination. On Saturday, Rubio may have gotten himself eliminated.

Conservative pundits spurn Kasich’s strong performance

John Kasich in New Hampshire earlier this year. Photo (cc) by Michael Vadon.
John Kasich in New Hampshire earlier this year. Photo (cc) by Michael Vadon.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Tuesday night’s Republican presidential debate was a useful reminder — as if I needed one — that these events are not being staged for my benefit.

Late in the proceedings, John Kasich put the finishing touches on what I thought was a strong performance by name-checking the conservative Catholic theologian Michael Novak in arguing that the free-enterprise system needs to be “underlaid with values.” No, I haven’t read Novak, but I was intrigued. Earlier, Kasich had what I thought was an effective exchange with Donald Trump over immigration. (The Washington Post has published a transcript here.)

To check in with the conservative media today, though, is to learn that some on the right think Kasich all but disqualified himself.

“Kasich espoused positions that can charitably be called compassionate conservatism, less kindly mini-liberalism of the sort that he says he practiced so successfully in Ohio when ‘people need help,’” writes the economist Irwin M. Stelzer at The Weekly Standard. Adds Paul Mirengoff of Powerline: “John Kasich annoyingly kept demanding speaking time. He used some of it to remind everyone that he’s the least conservative candidate in the field.”

A neutral analyst, Boston Globe political reporter James Pindell, thinks Chris Christie’s strong showing in the unwatched (by me, anyway) undercard makes him a good bet to replace Kasich in future debates. Kasich, Pindell notes, “backed increasing the minimum wage, bailing out big banks, and allowing 11 million illegal immigrants to stay in the country. It is hard to see how many Republicans will go along with the sentiment.”

Clearly Kasich — a top lieutenant in Newt Gingrich’s conservative revolution of the mid-1990s — has been recast as a hopeless RINO. And the notion that he might be the most appealing candidate the Republicans could put up against Hillary Clinton is apparently not nearly as interesting to conservative stalwarts as his heterodox views, summarized by the PBS NewsHour.

As the debate opened, all eyes were on the moderators. Would they manage to avoid the anti-media controversies that befell the CNBC panelists a couple of weeks ago while still managing to maintain a firm hand? My answer is that they partially succeeded. They avoided the snarky, disrespectful tone of the CNBC debate, and the candidates responded with a substantive discussion of the issues.

But on several occasions the panelists were just too soft. One example was Neil Cavuto’s exchange with Ben Carson in which he tried to press Carson on questions that have been raised about his truthfulness. Carson didn’t really answer, and before you knew it he was off and running about Benghazi.

Cavuto’s follow-up: “Thank you, Dr. Carson.”

Then there was the rather amazing question Maria Bartiromo asked Rubio toward the end of the debate, which I thought was well described by Max Fisher of Vox:

https://twitter.com/Max_Fisher/status/664292269554438144

Who won? After each of these encounters, the pundits keep telling us that Rubio is on the move. And yes, the Florida senator has risen in the polls, though he’s still well behind Trump (who informed us that he and Vladimir Putin are “stablemates”) and Carson.

But Rubio’s over-rehearsed demeanor may not wear well. I thought his weakest moment on Tuesday came when Rand Paul challenged him on military spending. The audience liked Rubio’s militaristic response. Paul, though, appeared to be at ease as he offered facts and figures, while Rubio just seemed to be sputtering talking points.

As for Jeb Bush, well, the consensus is that he did better than he had previously, but not enough to make a difference. “He may have stopped the free fall,” writes Jennifer Rubin, The Washington Post’s conservative blogger, “but he was outshone once again by competitors.” The questions about Bush’s continued viabililty will continue.

Carly Fiorina turned in another in a series of strong performances. But they don’t seem to be helping her much in the polls, and there was nothing that happened Tuesday night to make me think that’s going to change.

John Dickerson of Slate, who is also the host of CBS News’ Face the Nation, seems to believe the race will ultimately come down to Rubio’s mainstream conservatism and the much-harder-edged version offered by Ted Cruz, who once again showed he’s a skilled debater.

If that’s the case, let’s get on with it. Tuesday night’s event featured eight candidates — a bit more manageable than the previous three debates, but still too large to sustain a coherent line of thought. (What was that about Michael Novak again, Governor Kasich?)

For that to happen, though, Trump and Carson are going to have to fade. And despite months of predictions (including some by me) that their support would collapse, they remain at the top of the heap. As long as that’s the case, Rubio versus Cruz means precisely nothing.

“The Democrats are laughing,” Cruz said at one point in response to a question about immigration. In fact, the Republicans have given their rivals plenty of comedic material during in 2015. The question is whether that will change in 2016 — or if Hillary Clinton will be laughing all the way to Election Day.

Will the media call out Trump on his anti-vaxxer nonsense?

Donald Trump in 2011. Photo (cc) by Gage Skidmore. Some rights reserved.
Donald Trump in 2011. Photo (cc) by Gage Skidmore. Some rights reserved.

By any reasonable standard of what constitutes acceptable public discourse, Donald Trump’s presidential campaign should have ended on Wednesday at about 10:50 p.m.

That’s when he set his extravagantly sprayed hair on fire by indulging in some truly dangerous myths about vaccines. It was, by any measure, a deeply irresponsible exercise. I’d call it pandering, except that it’s possible he believes his own foolishness.

It began when CNN debate moderator Jake Tapper invited candidate Ben Carson, a physician, to lambaste Trump for repeating the false claims of the anti-vaxxer movement linking vaccines to autism. Carson responded mildly — too mildly. And that gave Trump an opportunity to pounce.

“I am totally in favor of vaccines. But I want smaller doses over a longer period of time,” Trump began. A few seconds later came this: “Just the other day, two years old, two and a half years old, a child, a beautiful child went to have the vaccine, and came back, and a week later got a tremendous fever, got very, very sick, now is autistic.”

Sadly, neither Carson nor the other physician-candidate, Rand Paul, wanted to rile the conspiracy theorists they’re hoping to win over. So both men oh-so-respectfully disagreed with Trump while actually endorsing his statement that parents ought to be able to spread out the timetable for their children to get vaccinated.

“It is true that we are probably giving way too many in too short a period of time,” Carson said. Added Paul, who’s traveled down this road before: “I’m all for vaccines. But I’m also for freedom.”

In case you’re not up on all the details, Julia Belluz of Vox offers an overview of the “elaborate fraud” behind the thoroughly debunked link between vaccines and autism. As for Trump’s spread-them-out advice and Carson’s and Paul’s weasely responses, science journalist Tara Haelle wrote in Forbes:

Vaccines are very precisely manufactured to include only what is absolutely necessary to induce enough of an immune response that the body can protect itself against those diseases. So a smaller dose wouldn’t protect a child. It would stick a child with a needle for no reason at all. And spreading out vaccines? That just increases the risks to the children, including leaving them more susceptible to the diseases for a longer period of time.

So what was CNN’s responsibility in promoting Trump’s life-threatening views? Some, such as Dartmouth College political scientist Brendan Nyhan, took to Twitter to argue that Tapper shouldn’t have asked the question in the first place.

I disagree. If, God help us, Trump actually got elected president, he’s going to be besieged by anti-vaxxers demanding that he translate his rhetoric into policy. Then, too, Michele Bachmann in 2011 and Chris Christie earlier this year did enormous damage to themselves by embracing the anti-vaccine movement. Why should it be any different this time?

Still, Wednesday night felt like a botched opportunity to educate viewers about the importance of vaccines.

Media reaction to Wednesday night’s anti-vaxxer moment was slow out of the gate, but by later Thursday and on Friday it had picked up. A particularly intriguing tidbit comes from Stat, a life-sciences vertical that’s part of The Boston Globe. According to reporters Eric Boodman and Ike Swetlitz, Trump is both a donor to and supporter of Autism Speaks, which emphatically rejects the anti-vaxxer myth.

In the immediate aftermath of the debate, the most addled take was offered by The Weekly Standard’s Fred Barnes (God love him), who wrote that Trump “surprised everyone, including Dr. Ben Carson, by being well-informed on the use of vaccines. As usual, he was a powerful presence.” You can’t make this stuff up.

The New York Times Tuesday morning had little except for a line in Gail Collins’ column and an item by Margot Sanger-Katz in its liveblog; later in the day it posted a strong article by Sabrina Tavernise and Catherine Saint Louis. The Washington Post published a long post by Michael E. Miller headlined “The GOP’s dangerous ‘debate’ on vaccines and autism.” Here’s how Miller described Carson blowing the big moment Tapper handed to him:

For months, Carson has touted his medical expertise while on the campaign trail. And in the weeks since the first debate, the famed surgeon has risen in the polls as a milder-mannered, more rational alternative to Trump.

Now was his chance for a home run; a big hit as swift and incisive as any surgical operation.

Instead, Carson bunted.

In Politico, Ben Schreckinger speculated that Trump’s “weak command” of the issues — including vaccines — may be the prelude to his long-anticipated decline. “The conversation has moved beyond Donald Trump,” he wrote. Added Jamelle Bouie of Slate: “The good news is that this debate might mark the beginning of the end for Trump, who struggled to tackle substantive questions on foreign policy, his advisers, and what he’d actually do as president of the United States.”

We’ll see. Some 51 percent of respondents to a survey posted at the Drudge Report thought Trump won; Fiorina came in second with just 19 percent. It was totally unscientific, of course, but more than 680,000 people took the time to register their views.

Overall it was a dispiriting night. It was somehow appropriate that it ended with the news that right-wing hatemonger Ann Coulter was ranting on Twitter about the “f—ing Jews.” I mean, really. What else?

The vaccine issue, though, deserves to linger — and fester, and grow, until all but Trump’s most unhinged supporters understand that this man has no business being anywhere near the White House.

Published previously at WGBHNews.org and The Huffington Post.

A good night for Bush and a bad one for Trump

I hadn’t expected to watch Thursday night’s Republican debate. But it turned out to be available on my flight to San Fransciso, my credit card was twitching in my hand, and so…

For what it’s worth, I thought Jeb Bush was the winner and Donald Trump the loser. There were three adults on stage: Bush, Chris Christie and John Kasich. Christie positioned himself as a bad man for bad times, ready to cut your Social Security and take away your civil liberties, and that never appeals to voters. He certainly got the better of it stylistically with Rand Paul, but I suspect most Americans like the idea that the government can’t spy on you without a warrant.

Which leaves Bush and Kasich. Both were calm, amiable and, in my view, quite appealing. But Kasich, the governor of Ohio, seemed more like the guy who should be welcoming the candidates to his home state, not an actual candidate. Bush seemed happy to be there and fundamentally optimistic in his outlook. He made no obvious errors. It was the biggest event of the campaign so far, and he did well.

Now I realize that Trump has made a shameful and shameless buffoon of himself on numerous occasions, and his poll numbers have only gone up. But I thought the Fox News moderators did an excellent job of forcing him to talk about the fact that he’s not much of a Republican or a conservative. Not that he cared — he responded to everything with his usual bluster. But that, more than a litany of offensive Trumpisms, is going to take a toll on his campaign. He could run as an independent, of course, but I strongly suspect he’ll be a much-diminished figure six months from now.

The post-debate punditry seemed to focus on Marco Rubio. I agree that he didn’t embarrass himself, but he struck me as stiff and overly prepared in the manner of someone who was a little too young and inexperienced to be up there.

Of the rest, Scott Walker disappeared into a miasma of blandness, Ted Cruz should disappear, Rand Paul failed to meet even the extremely low level of plausibility set by his father (although, as I said, I’m mostly with him on civil liberties and his opposition to foreign intervention) and Ben Carson made me wonder what all the fuss was about two years ago.

And Mike Huckabee is just a hate-mongering disgrace.

How the Post explained Cantor’s defeat before it happened

Robert Costa (left) and Ralph Hallow of The Washington Times at the CPAC 2013 conference.
Robert Costa (left) and Ralph Hallow of The Washington Times at the CPAC 2013 conference.

Published previously at WGBHNews.org.

The political press today is engorged with analysis that attempts to explain why House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost the Republican primary in his Virginia district to a Tea Party challenger on Tuesday. But given that the pundits were as surprised as everyone else, there is no particular reason to think they are capable of telling us why it happened.

Nearly a month ago, though, Jenna Portnoy and Robert Costa of The Washington Post saw it coming. In an article headlined “Eric Cantor’s tea party opponent in Va. primary may be picking up momentum,” the two wrote that Cantor’s opponent, David Brat, had energized the right-wing base of the party. Cantor, Brat’s supporters believed, had been insufficiently hardline on issues such as immigration reform, the debt ceiling and the Affordable Care Act.

Weeks before the voting, Portnoy and Costa also put their finger on a Cantor tactic that seems to have backfired: going after Brat so hard that he improved his unknown opponent’s name recognition and gave him legitimacy. They quote Brat as saying, “I’m a rookie, he’s never gone negative, and he’s putting my face and name on Fox News, which is unheard of. If they’re doing that, that means their internal polling shows that I’m not at zero. I’m a risk of some sort.”

Portnoy is a local reporter for the Post, having previously covered New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie for The Star-Ledger of Newark. I’m sure she’s a fine reporter. What the Cantor story tells me, though, is that the Post’s move to poach Costa from National Review last November is paying off. As Joe Coscarelli wrote in New York magazine, Costa — who is not yet 30, and who rose to prominence during last year’s debt-ceiling debacle — is rare among conservative journalists in that he sees himself as a reporter first, trusted by and well-plugged-in among all factions.

If you want to know why Cantor lost, don’t bother with the Wednesday morning quarterbacking taking place elsewhere. Instead, go back and read what Portnoy and Costa wrote weeks ago.

Photo (cc) by Gage Skidmore and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.